Simpson drops challenge to Texas House Speaker Straus

Posted Tuesday, Jan. 08, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

Topics: Texas, Texas Senate

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Key dates

The 83rd session of the Texas Legislature will run for 140 days.

Jan. 8

Session begins

March 8

Deadline for filing bills and joint resolutions other than local bills and emergency measures

May 27

Last day of the session

June 16

Last day the governor may sign or veto bills passed during the regular session

Aug. 26

Date that bills without specific effective dates become law

Info: Texas Legislative Council: www.tlc.state.tx.us

$101.4 billion

General purpose revenue expected over next two years.

What is the most pressing issue facing the 83rd Texas Legislature?

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AUSTIN - House Speaker Joe Straus was re-elected by acclamation on the opening day of the 83rd Legislature Tuesday after conservative challenger David Simpson withdrew his candidacy.

Simpson, a Tea Party-backed Republican lawmaker from Longview, announced his decision in a personal privilege speech as members prepared to vote on the leadership position. He told colleagues that House leaders had agreed to address some of the internal House reforms that had been the centerpiece of his brief candidacy.

“Theodore Roosevelt once said, ‘The best prize that life has to offer is the chance to work hard at work worth doing,’” Straus said after being re-elected. “Improving education, expanding opportunity and meeting the challenges of a growing population – this is work worth doing. And it is work that can no longer be ignored.

“So let us be consumed by the urgency of the task before us,” he said. “Let us be bold. Let us be visionary. and let us focus on what Texas can be.”

The speaker's challenge had loomed as one of the few elements of controversy on an opening day mostly devoted to ceremony. Legislators - including scores of newcomers fresh from inaugural election victories in November - are embarking on a 140-day session loaded with divisive issues.

But on Tuesday, members of the 83rd Legislature greeted each other with smiles and handshakes - some shedding happy tears as they took their oaths of office.

Even so, there was a serious mood, as legislators know they have much to accomplish before the end of the session.

"There are hard choices before this body that call to be solved," Dr. Tom Pace, senior pastor at St. Luke's United Methodist Church in Houston, said during the invocation in the Texas Senate. "(All Texans) need us to make decisions that are not easy ones, we need you to lead the way forward for us.

'Show us the way'

Texas Gov. Rick Perry spoke to both chambers, noting that the economy has improved during the past two years.

But tough decisions still loom, he cautioned lawmakers.

“Two years ago we chose a fiscally conservative path that has led us here today by prioritizing and tightening our belts. This session is an opportunity to rededicate ourselves to the policies that have made Texas economically strong in the first place,” the governor said. “When people keep more of their own money it’s better for them, it’s better for their families, and it’s better for the state.”

During this session, which ends May 27, lawmakers will deal with thousands of bills addressing issues ranging from health care and gambling to educational measures and concealed handguns. But the only bill they must address is passing a state budget.

Now that Comptroller Susan Combs predicts state lawmakers will have $101.4 billion to spend on the state's budget for the next two years, Perry said tough decisions still loom.

"There are interests ... they all figure we have manna falling from the heavens. And they all have your phone numbers and addresses," Perry quipped. "We have the opportunity to rededicate ourselves ... a chance to put our fiscal house in order for years to come.

"We must control the appetite for more spending," he said. "With a better budgetary picture, now is the time for us to improve the fiscal outlook for future legislatures."

Perry called for major budgetary reforms, a renewed commitment to preventing new tax increases, a determination to stop efforts to raid the state's Rainy Day Fund - and consideration of potential tax relief. He also said infrastructure, water and transportation needs will be among key issues, as will educating Texas' work force, protecting unborn children and making sure Texans don't abuse government aid.

"At the end of the day, I'm certain we will work together in the best interest of our state and merit the faith that has been put in (the legislature) by the people in your district," Perry said.

First day

For the most part, the beginning of the 83rd Legislative session was devoted to pomp and circumstance as both Senate and House members took their oaths of office in chambers filled with friends, family and constituents. Folding chairs were set up in both chambers to accommodate the throngs of visitors and distinguished guests.

Hundreds of North Texans Texans – including former Fort Worth Mayor Kenneth Barr, Fort Worth City Councilman Joel Burns, Tarrant County Commissioner Roy C. Brooks and political strategist J.D. Angle – made their way to Austin to watch their elected officials take office and attend a variety of receptions and parties.

Texas Secretary of State John Steen, fulfilling a traditional role, convened the 150-member House to order at 12:01 p.m. and urged veteran lawmakers and freshmen alike to think big as they tackle state problems ranging from water to transportation.

"Now is not the time for small thinking," said the Republican official, whom Texas Gov. Rick Perry appointed to the post in November, calling Texas "a state of big ideas."

In the Senate, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst made his biggest public appearance since losing last year's GOP primary battle for the U.S. Senate to now Sen. Ted Cruz.

Dewhurst, the Senate's presiding officer who has said he will run for re-election next year, has pledged to make Texas the most "fiscally and socially conservative state in the country."

That may mean he pushes forward legislative measures keeping the budget low, creating more restrictions on abortion, allowing school vouchers and requiring recipients of welfare and unemployment to be drug-tested.

At the same time, he's dealing with a criminal investigation revolving around his former campaign manager, who is suspected of embezzling possibly more than $1 million from Dewhurst's campaign account.

"I'm excited, we are excited, about the session that just started," Dewhurst told the crowd.

Senate action

Former Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum drew attention in the upper chamber Tuesday, visiting and watching the first-day ceremonies from the Senate floor..

Santorum, who said he spoke at an area church while in town and visited Tuesday with Perry and other officials, said he’s a friend and guest of new state Sen. Ken Paxton, R-McKinney. “He’s a good friend,” Santorum said.

Perry gave a shout-out to Santorum, adding that his son gave his former rival a Texas A&M sweater vest. “Wear it with pride, senator,” the governor said.

During the swearing-in ceremony Tuesday, state Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, took the oath of office for her second term, after winning a hard-fought re-election battle in Senate District 10 against former state Rep. Mark Shelton, R-Fort Worth. This was one of the most watched and costly races in the November election, as Democrats statewide backed Davis and Republicans statewide – including many of Davis’ current Senate colleagues – stood by Shelton.

Davis has said that there’s “no time for grudge matches” and that she and others need to work together to address problems the state is facing.

“It is truly an honor to represent the people of Fort Worth and Tarrant County,” Davis said. “I will continue to fight every day as their senator to restore and strengthen our schools, foster good jobs, pursue justice for crime victims, and ensure that Texans have the efficient, accountable government they deserve.”

Former state Rep. Kelly Hancock, a North Richland Hills Republican, took the oath of office as the senator representing District 9. He replaces the retiring state Sen. Chris Harris, R-Arlington.

“It was a surreal moment for me,” Hancock said. “It’s an honor to be here and I’m grateful for the opportunity.”

At the same time, fellow GOP state Sens. Jane Nelson of Flower Mound and Brian Birdwell of Granbury were among the 31 senators sworn in as well.

“I’m proud to serve as your senator and now as dean of the Republican caucus,” Nelson tweeted during the ceremony.

Perry’s speech in the Senate was marked by an unusual occurrence – one of the guests on the Senate floor passed out shortly after Perry began speaking. The governor stopped as the Senate took a short break so that doctors could attend to the person who passed out.

After a few minutes, Dewhurst reported that the person was fine and had fainted after locking their knees.

“I have not had that kind of impact on anyone,” Perry later quipped.

State Sen. Leticia Van De Putte, D-San Antonio, was elected president pro-tem of the Senate.

House action

Straus, who has served as House speaker since January of 2009, was virtually assured of winning re-election with the approach of the session but Simpson signaled as late as Monday evening that he planned to stay in the race and not withdraw. He was re-elected by acclamation after Simpson withdrew his candidacy.

Four House members stood at the speaker’s platform and praised Straus' leadership in nominating and seconding speeches. “We simply know we can trust him,” said Rep. John Zerwas, R-Richmond, telling members that Straus has the skill to “rally this body to a common purpose for all Texans.”

Straus, a San Antonio Republican who has been a House member since 2005, has periodically confronted conservative dissent during his four years as House leader but has beaten back potential challenges. Paxton, now in the Senate, also challenged Straus for the speakership in the past, in 2011, but he also withdrew his bid on the first day.

Straus, 53, was first elected speaker in 2009 after a coalition of Republicans and Democrats ousted former Speaker Tom Craddick of Midland, who has served in 22 legislative sessions and is now the dean of the House. Craddick was applauded when he was recognized on the House floor.

In a speech outlining his goals for the session, Straus highlighted education, water, transportation and budget transparency as the major priorities he wants the House to pursue in the weeks ahead.

He called for action against what he termed “cumbersome” and rigorous testing system that he said constrains public education and “accessible, affordable” higher education in the state’s colleagues and universities.

Straus also called for “bold substantial action” to solve the state’s water problems, including adequate funding of a 50-year state water plan.

Simpson began his challenge of Straus several weeks ago after an earlier challenger, Rep. Bryan Hughes, R-Mineola, dropped out of the race and threw his support to Simpson, who was elected to the House in 2010.

Simpson told colleagues that he ran for speaker to correct what he said was a pattern “of intimidation, payback and uneven” application of the rules. “Every member deserves to be treated with decency and respect,” Simpson said.

As he approached the end of his speech, Simpson said that he would withdraw his candidacy “at the request of colleagues,” adding that the House leadership was receptive to possible internal reforms.

While the day was reserved primarily for ceremony, lobbyists and citizen advocacy groups also swarmed through the capitol to meet the members and begin making their case for their legislative goals. Three people in wheelchairs, members of a group called ADAPT of Texas, posted themselves near the entrance of the Senate to draw attention to legislation to improve conditions for the disabled.

“We think the budget is critical for people with disabilities,” said Bob Kafka of Austin, 66, who was permanently disabled in a car wreck when he was 27.

Dave Montgomery

Twitter: @daveymontgomery

Anna M. Tinsley, (817) 390-7610

Twitter: @annatinsley

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